Monday, April 27, 2015

stretch across time

I'm reading the book The Road to Character by David Brooks. I love reading books and articles by David Brooks because sometimes we agree, but often we disagree. It's always an exciting journey.

The Road to Character is a perfect example. While reading it, I find myself cheering... for example, in chapter one there is a bit about reviewing the mistakes of the day each night:
"He tallies his recurring core sins and the other mistakes that might have branched off from them. Then he develops strategies for how he might do better tomorrow. Tomorrow he'll try to look differently at people, pause more before people. He'll put care above prestige, the higher thing above the lower thing. We all have a moral responsibility to be more moral every day, and he will struggle to inch ahead each day in this most important sphere."

And, in chapter two, the part about changing the question from 'What do I want from life?' to 'What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do?'
"This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs. Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed? As the novelist Frederick Buechner put it, 'At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world's deep need?'"

In chapter five, I found that I am, surprisingly, a big fan of George Marshall. Marshall is an example of courage and honor and obligation to community and country.
"Some people seem to have been born into this world with a sense of indebtedness for the blessing of being alive. They are aware of the transmission of generations, what has been left to them by those who came before, their indebtedness to their ancestors, their obligations to a set of moral responsibilities that stretch across time."
 I struggled more with the last 4 chapters. As is typical with my relationship with author, David Brooks. But this book has given me much food for thought, many references for further reading, and a wonderful appreciation for the character of those who have come before me.

A wonderful quote in the book by civil rights leader Bayard Rustin pretty much sums it up:
"The only way to reduce ugliness in the world is to reduce it in yourself."

Friday, April 10, 2015

because of who you believe yourself to be

Last month I saw John Green tweeting about a book, The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday:

It is beautifully written, as John Green says, sentence-to-sentence.

The Last Flight of Poxl West weaves together two voices: Elijah Goldstein and Poxl West. Poxl West, Eli's uncle, publishes his World War II memoir Skylock to great acclaim and success. Fifteen-year-old Eli worships his uncle Poxl.

Amazon says it is a memoir within a memoir within a novel.

The book alternates between excerpts of Poxl's memoir and a grown Eli retelling his youth.
"And write about it he did. Each time he finished a new chapter he would take me somewhere new and recount to me his finest similies, the clearest arisen memory, the complicated feeling that arose as he remembered things he'd obviously spent most of his adulthood trying to forget - all for the sake of literature. For the sake of those who came after him. We talked about the fact that this is why men wrote: to leave behind their stories for those who would come years later."

It is a beautiful book about storytelling.

My favorite parts of the book are the references to Shakespeare:

"He who had been my enemy was now my friend. This was a lesson I would recognize often in the days to come. While in the pages of Othello we may feel we understand a character like Iago, when we meet him in life, he retains the capacity for change. He's not cut off from the obviation of his sins. If Othello had spared Desdemona and himself, surely he and Iago could have met in some new circumstance in their later years. There would have been memories to hash out, confessions to be made - the great dissembler would have had to try not to dissemble for once, to speak and be heard after his great sins had been unveiled. But couldn't they have been as Navigator Smith and I now were?"

"But maybe it was up until that moment, no matter what we'd done, we'd assumed we were like the vast majority of men - like Lear himself - self judged  to be more sinned against than sinning. Now something was changing in both of us the more Smith talked. As I say, if you met him in life, years later, even Iago might have turned from his role. But it could work the other way, as well, couldn't it? That line from The Merchant of Venice had crossed my mind many times in the years since Glynnis's mother and I first read it: 'If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?' Somehow I'd thought quite clearly that this line had been uttered by one of Shakespeare's great villains, not one of his great heroes."

"When I read Hamlet in my thirties, studying it in earnest and reading it for the first time since I'd encountered it in the cave with Mrs. Goldring, I came to find that there is a disagreement among Shakespeare scholars over the nature of the ghost of his father, King Hamlet, who visits him throughout the play. Some believe it is meant to be staged as a physical manifestation: The supernatural has occurred. A ghost has set foot onstage. The Tragedy of Hamlet, in this staging, is the original ghost story. But other scholars believe that it is simply a manifestation of Hamlet's guilt, the most famous indecision in all of literature: the question of whether Hamlet will act. There is no such thing as a ghost; there is only such thing as Hamlet's hallucination. To tell a tale, Hamlet famously says, is to "hold a mirror up to nature," and in the mirror we will never see the face of the dead. It is only our own image we see."

The praise for The Last Flight of Poxl West goes something like this...
"A richly layered, beautifully told, and somehow lovable story about war, revenge, and loss. A book about what we make of our heroes, and what our heroes make of us."

Keep the poem Why The Novel Is Necessary but Sometimes Hard to Read by Marie Howe in mind as you read this book:

Why The Novel Is Necessary but
Sometimes Hard to Read

It happens in time. Years passed until the old woman,
one snowy morning, realized she had never loved her daughter...

Or, Five years later she answered the door, and her suitor had returned
almost unrecognizable from his journeys...

But before you get to that part you have to learn the names
you have to suffer not knowing anything about anyone

and slowly come to understand who each of them is, or who each of them
imagines him or her self to be -

and then, because you are the reader, you must try to understand who
you think each of them is because of who you believe yourself to be

in relation to their situation

or to your memory of one very much like it.

Oh it happens in time and time is hard to live through.
I can't read anything anymore, my dying brother said one afternoon,
not even letters. Come on, Come on, he said, waving his hand in the air,
What am I interested in - plot?

You come upon the person the author put there
as if you'd been pushed into a room and told to watch the dancing-

pushed into parties, into basements, across moors, into
the great drawing rooms of great cities, into the small cold cabin, or

to here, beside the small running river where a boy is weeping,
and no one comes,

and you have to watch without saying anything he can hear.

One by one the readers come and watch him weeping by the river,
and he never knows,

unless he too has read the story where a boy feels himself all alone.

This is the life you have written, the novel tells us. What happens next?

The Last Flight of Poxl West is a wonderful book with a thought-provoking  final surprise.